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FRIPRO-Fri prosjektstøtte

Uncovering the paths to pragmatic resilience

Alternative title: Veiene til pragmatisk resiliens

Awarded: NOK 8.0 mill.

One of the most prevalent yet understudied barriers to healthy ageing is communicative decline. In particular, a large segment of the ageing population struggles with pragmatic skills, such as the ability to read between the lines or tailor utterances in partner-specific ways. To illustrate, imagine the following scenario: a doctor is in the undesirable position of giving a severe diagnosis to their patient. To soften the blow, the doctor uses less direct language (e.g., “possibly” vs “probably”). While younger adults seamlessly incorporate politeness strategies into their interpretation of utterances, many older adults have difficulty understanding non-literal language and may misunderstand the likelihood or severity of the diagnosis. This in turn could completely alter their decision to proceed with treatment, leading to unintended consequences. Given the importance of effective communication in both high-stakes medical interactions and daily life, it is critical we identify the sources of pragmatic deficits to remove communicative barriers to healthy ageing. RESILIENCE will address this knowledge need by gathering longitudinal data on adults’ (ages 18-90) pragmatic, cognitive, and language skills, resulting in the first large-scale (anonymised and open access) dataset of its kind. Capitalising on this rich data, we will address the following objectives: • Clarify the general trajectory with which pragmatic abilities change over the adult lifespan • Pinpoint which mechanisms underlie pragmatic abilities at different stages of development •. Develop a unified theoretical model of pragmatic change in ageing • Create algorithms to predict the trajectory of an individual’s pragmatic abilities in upcoming years • Design and pilot a multidimensional tool that assesses pragmatic health (by targeting both pragmatic skills and their underlying mechanisms), opening the door to interventions Together, this will allow us to uncover the paths to pragmatic resilience.

A cornerstone of human communication is our reliance on pragmatic skills to guide linguistic interactions (e.g., reasoning about others' mental states to bridge the gap between what is said and intended in conversation). However these skills are highly sensitive to age-related decline, leading to miscommunication and uninformed decision making in the older adult population. This raises an important question, one which has puzzled linguistics and psychologists for decades: if pragmatic competence is fundamental to communication, why do individuals vary so much in this capacity? Traditionally, psychologists have approached pragmatic competence from a cognitive angle, reasoning that individual differences in executive functions (i.e., the cognitive skills associated with goal-directed actions) are what underlie effective pragmatic behavior. In a similar vein, language scientists have taken a linguistic approach, reasoning that one’s language background (e.g., the frequency with which individuals shift between languages) shapes pragmatic skills by enhancing sensitivity to the communicative context. This focus on either cognitive or linguistic influences has resulted in two expansive yet disparate areas of research. RESILIENCE will unite these disciplines to pursue a longstanding debate on what underlies pragmatic resilience and decline using a large-scale, interdisciplinary and longitudinal approach. By gathering data on adults' (ages 18-90) pragmatic, cognitive and language skills over multiple time points, we will develop a comprehensive theoretical model that explains how cognitive and linguistic systems interact to shape pragmatic competence as we age, and create algorithms that predict the trajectory of an individual’s pragmatic abilities in upcoming years. Based on these results we will design a multidimensional tool that detects the earliest signs of pragmatic deficits, leading to future interventions, allowing us to uncover the paths to pragmatic resilience.

Funding scheme:

FRIPRO-Fri prosjektstøtte

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